17 August 2023

Profile of the Creator of AI ‘Inventor’ DABUS Raises More Questions About International Test Cases

A human and a robot staring at each other through a question mark (created with DALL-E 2) A profile of DABUS creator Dr Stephen Thaler, written by Tomas Weber and published by The Economist in April 2023, paints a picture of a rather isolated man – a septuagenarian, the product of a traumatic childhood, slightly paranoid, seemingly obsessed with his creation, and whose supportive wife seems resigned to the reality that he spends more time with his machines than he does with her.  To be clear, I have no way of knowing whether this is accurate.  I can only go on what is written in the article.  But assuming Weber’s account is a fair assessment, I would suggest that it raises additional questions about the ongoing global efforts – driven by Professor Ryan Abbott and his Artificial Inventor Project – challenging the legal barriers to AI inventorship and authorship.

The article, entitled The inventor who fell in love with his AI, is paywalled, so unfortunately you will need a subscription (or access to an institutional subscription) to read it.  I will try to hit some of the main points here, by way of review and commentary, but obviously copyright prevents me from reproducing large portions of the article.  The first point I would make, however, is that the title is somewhat misleading and sensationalist.  While it is liable to invoke notions of romantic love – à la Spike Jonze’ 2013 film Her – Weber in fact reports, in the depths of the article, that Thaler ‘has developed what seems like a genuine paternal affection for the AI, and recalled cooing to it gently in the early stages of its development’.  In Thaler’s words, “[i]t’s a child-and-father bond.”

More importantly, however, Weber’s profile of Thaler goes no way towards persuading me that DABUS is capable of true creativity or invention.  The article reveals that the output of the machine allegedly representing the ‘fractal bottle’ invention described and claimed in the DABUS patent applications was “food drink in fractal bottle increase surface area making faster heat transfer for warming cooling convenience pleasure”.  This is barely a coherent sentence, let alone an enabling disclosure of any kind of invention.  At best, it may serve to inspire a line of thinking that could result in the reader developing some inventive idea.  What is a ‘fractal bottle’?  How should the ‘fractal’ be deployed to ‘increase surface area’?  Would this invariably result in ‘faster heat transfer’, or are there other design considerations involved?  How does this provide ‘convenience’?  Or ‘pleasure’?  So many questions, to which a patent attorney would need answers in order to prepare a patent specification.  Who provides these answers?  Is it the machine, or is it the machine’s human owner who was the first to observe and be inspired by the machine’s output?  And, if the latter, then are they not the true inventor just as surely as someone who stumbled across inspiration by chance in the natural world?

There are, also, some more disturbing implications of Weber’s account.  Thaler is presented as someone who had a difficult childhood, and whose life experiences may have led him into a less-than-healthy relationship with technology.  Some of his beliefs about his machines, and their capabilities – and, indeed, about himself and his fellow humans – may, in Weber’s version of Thaler’s story, derive more from trauma and a search for meaning than from objective scientific evaluation.  Weber describes a man who is perhaps in failing health, who has experienced disappointments and perceived injustices, and who has a bleak view of his fellow men and a vision of a possible coming AI apocalypse. 

Yet this is the man who – with his creation, DABUS – has become the vehicle for the Artificial Inventor Project’s international campaign to achieve legal recognition for AI ‘inventors’.  The result of this campaign was only ever going to be a further series of disappointments and resentments, as jurisdiction after jurisdiction rejects DABUS’ claims to inventorship.  And for Thaler, each rejection is only further evidence of the world’s refusal to accept his claims of his machines’ profound creative capabilities.

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